Maya Angelou once said, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his needs, is good for him.” Middle grade readers are eager to read books with strong characters, rich details, and a unique storyline. Putting the right book in the hands of a middle grade reader is an exciting challenge. The books on this list are some of the most frequently checked out and talked about books in my library and are, I hope, books that are helping to form future readers, one page turn at a time.
- Anderson, John David. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. Walden Pond, 2016.
Ms. Bixby is one of those amazing, life-changing teachers—the kind we all strive to be. In Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, we learn about Ms. Bixby through the eyes of Topher, Brand, and Steve. These students love Ms. Bixby for very different reasons, which are slowly revealed throughout the book. One day Ms. Bixby announces that she will not be able to finish out the school year. The students are devastated, but Topher, Brand, and Steve make it their goal to give her the best day ever on her last day of school. What follows is a heartbreakingly funny quest through the town as they gather supplies and work toward their goal. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is a reminder of the lasting effect that really great teachers have on their students. Be sure to read this book with a box of tissue nearby.
- Angleberger, Tom, and Cece Bell. Inspector Flytrap. Harry N. Abrams, 2016.
Inspector Flytrap is a detective who only tackles “BIG DEAL” cases. With the help of his trusted assistant, Nina the Goat, Inspector Flytrap does his best to help his community solve only the biggest mysteries. Nina, unfortunately, has a bad habit of eating the evidence, but Flytrap can’t fire her because he depends on her for transportation to the crime scenes. Three books have been published, and fans are already pleading for more. These books are great for introducing students to mysteries as the books are made up of several shorter mysteries with crazy and unpredictable solutions. Angleberger and Bell have created a hilarious illustrated series that is perfect for second and third grade readers.
- Beasley, Kate. Gertie’s Leap to Greatness. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Gertie’s Leap to Greatness is Kate Beasley’s debut novel, and it is a great one. Gertie Reece Foy is a fifth grader whose goal is to be the greatest fifth grader in the universe. Gertie lives with her great-aunt Rae while her dad works on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Gertie’s mom is absent, so Gertie wants to show how amazing she is in hopes of winning some love and affection. During the summer, Gertie discovers a zombie frog and thinks it will be her ticket to starting off fifth grade with a bang. But when a new girl, Mary Sue Spivey, shows up, Gertie knows she must compete for the position of greatest fifth grader. This book is full of brilliantly funny and heart-wrenching moments that make readers want to reach into the book and give Gertie a hug. Gertie’s Leap to Greatness would be a fun read aloud or would be great to put into the hands of that student who just wants to be noticed.
- Brown, Peter. The Wild Robot. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016.
Peter Brown is best known for his picture books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and The Curious Garden. The Wild Robot is his first chapter book. Roz is a robot who first opens her eyes on a remote island. She doesn’t know where she’s come from or how she arrived at the island, and she wonders what reason she has for being there. Roz quickly adapts to life on the island, learning to communicate with all the wildlife, even the wildlife that doesn’t trust her at first. Roz becomes a valued member of the island community, and life is good, until the people who created her show up to take her back. A war breaks out on the island between Roz’s creators and her new friends as they try to protect Roz. Friendship, acceptance, survival, and the clash between technology and nature are just a few of the themes eloquently woven into the fabric of this book.
- Hodder, Bridget. The Rat Prince. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Readers might think they know the story of Cinderella, but then a book like this comes along.
“You know her as Cinderella. But before her stepmother came to Lancastyr Manor, the humans called her Rose de Lancastyr. They also called her beautiful. This confused my rat-subjects and me, since we found her painfully unattractive, with her huge salad-green eyes, skin like cream, and long waves of butter-yellow hair. Yet regardless of her looks and the fuss people made of them, Lady Rose was both gentle and kind” (5).
The Rat Prince is told from the perspective of Prince Char, the rat prince who is desperately trying to save his kingdom from being poisoned to death by Cinderella’s stepmother and Cinderella. The Rat Prince reveals what the rats went through the night of the ball and the true nature of the human prince. In this well-written book, readers find themselves cheering for the rats and for Cinderella (a.k.a. Rose) as the stroke of midnight looms, holding dire consequences. Hodder has created a delightful retelling of this classic fairytale with surprise twists and turns in which even rats can live happily ever after.
- Holm, Jennifer L. Full of Beans. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2016.
Full of Beans is a prequel to the Newbery Honor Book Turtle in Paradise (2011). In 1934, an island in Key West, Florida, is in rough shape. Key West is bankrupt, the majority of the residents are unemployed, and garbage isn’t even being collected. Beans Curry is an entrepreneurial young man who finds creative, if sometimes illegal, ways to earn money. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government takes over the management of the town as the residents pull together to save their little island. Fans of Turtle in Paradise will learn about the origins of the Diaper Gang and even what is in the secret recipe to cure diaper rash. Holm has written an easy-to-read and enjoyable piece of historical fiction with great back matter explaining more about how Key West was saved. The book also describes why the houses on Key West were painted such unusual colors. Reading Full of Beans would be a great way for those who have not yet read Turtles in Paradise to learn about the island and its inhabitants
- McMann, Lisa. Going Wild. HarperCollins, 2016.
Charlie Wilde has to move from Chicago to Arizona, leaving behind her friends and an exciting life in the big city. Charlie discovers a bracelet like the ones that athletes wear, so she decides to wear it to soccer tryouts hoping it will give her an edge. Charlie quickly learns that this is not your ordinary bracelet; while wearing the bracelet, she has super speed, incredible strength, and unnatural healing abilities. With the help of her new friends, Marie and Mac, Charlie is determined to figure out what the bracelet is and how to use it to its fullest potential. Charlie doesn’t know that there are people looking for this bracelet who will stop at nothing to attain it. Going Wild ends with a great cliff-hanger, but not to worry because this is the first in a trilogy with the second book coming out later this year. McMann has created a masterful work of science fiction for students who might not always gravitate toward this genre.
- Pennypacker, Sara. Pax. Balzer+Bray, 2016.
Pax is set during a war, in an unknown location, at some point in history. Instead of getting caught up in historical facts and details, the reader is allowed to simply take in a heart-wrenching story about the deep bond between a boy named Peter and a fox named Pax. Peter rescued Pax as a kit, but when Peter’s father joins the military, Peter is forced to let Pax go in a nearby wood. Neither Peter nor Pax knows how to live without the other and the struggle to survive is almost more than either can bear. Told in alternating chapters between Peter’s and Pax’s points of view, Pax follows their journeys to find each other again. As Peter and Pax are introduced to new friends, they face questions about love, loyalty, identity, grief, and hope. Jon Klassen’s illustrations throughout the book enhance this gripping narrative that is sure to stick with the reader long after the last page is turned.
- Sachar, Louis. Fuzzy Mud. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015.
This is the 2015 book alluded to in the title, but I didn’t discover this book until 2016, so it’s a 2016 book for me. A student recommended this book to me, and I am so glad I took him up on his recommendation. Sachar is the author of Holes (2000) and Wayside Stories for Wayside School (2004), but, unlike those books, Fuzzy Mud is a work of science fiction. Tamaya Dhilwaddi and Marshall Walsh have been walking to and from school together forever because Tamaya’s mom doesn’t want her walking alone. Chad Hilligas, the school bully, picks a fight with Marshall, who runs into the forbidden woods for a safe route home. Chad follows Marshall and Tamaya, however, and ambushes them. Tamaya throws some odd looking mud at Chad in an attempt to get away. The mud hits Chad in the face. Tamaya ends up with an odd rash on her hands the next morning that starts to spread, and Chad is mysteriously absent from school. The mud turns out to be a mutated microorganism that quickly spreads through the small town. As the government struggles to contain the mud and stop the spread of illness, we see how bad events can turn enemies into allies and how quickly something very small can turn into something very big.
- Urban, Linda. Weekends with Max and His Dad. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016.
For children, having divorced parents is never easy. Linda Urban has given a voice to the children of divorced parents and the struggle to define what “home” means. Max is in third grade and loves his weekends with his dad. Max’s dad tries hard to make every weekend an adventure for the two of them, but his dad isn’t always perfect. Max’s dad just moved into a new apartment and is trying to make it feel like home for Max, but with very little furniture, Max is finding it hard to adjust. This book has short chapters with great small moments. Weekends with Max and His Dad is a great fit for third and fourth graders but could also be used with older students to study characterization.
Anderson, John David. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. Walden Pond Press, 2016.
Angleberger, Tom, and Cece Bell. Inspector Flytrap. Harry N. Abrams, 2016.
Beasley, Kate. Gertie’s Leap to Greatness. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Brown, Peter. The Wild Robot. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016.
Hodder, Bridget. The Rat Prince. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Holm, Jennifer L. Full of Beans. Random House Books for Young Readers, 2016.
McMann, Lisa. Going Wild. HarperCollins, 2016.
Pennypacker, Sara. Pax. Balzer+Bray, 2016.
Sachar, Louis. Fuzzy Mud. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015.
Urban, Linda. Weekends with Max and His Dad. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016.
Mary Jo Staal is a pre-K–5th librarian at Hudsonville Christian School in Hudsonville, Michigan.